INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut OCTOBER 2014 - by Staff Writers
ALBUM BY ALBUM: SINÉAD O'CONNOR
"It's so bloody nice to talk music, not how your life's shit and what's in your handbag."
Sinéad O'Connor is in fine spirits when she calls Uncut from her home in Dublin. "It's so nice to bloody talk about music," she explains. "Usually, people just want to talk to you about bloody hip fat and stuff like that. How your life is shit, what's in your handbag. Anything but the music." Certainly, during a career spanning nearly three decades, O'Connor's capacity for generating controversy has often meant her music has been overshadowed. But, then, she has always followed a singular path. Jazz tunes, Irish folk songs and reggae covers have dotted her catalogue, while her own material has fearlessly addressed big issues from religion to child abuse. What's next? "I want to go forward as a songwriter," she says. "I'm always gonna sing. But I'd love to get into writing songs for other people now. I believe I have the potential." But today, she is happy just to look back on nine of her ten studio albums... "Hang on a minute while I light a cigarette," she says. "I guess it's been an adventure."
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THE LION AND THE COBRA - Troy, Mandinka and I Want Your (Hands On Me) showcase O'Connor's mercurial talents. Run-ins with the producer demonstrate her single-mindedness.
You know, we actually made two versions of this. The first one was produced by Mick Glossop, which I didn't like. It was all a bit too pretty and ethereal. He was trying to turn me into Enya or a female version of Van Morrison. So we binned it. I took over production and we re-recorded it. I was also cooking my first baby at the time, but I guess when you're that young it doesn't seem like too much. In those days, you didn't really need to know how to work all the equipment to produce a record. You just needed a really good engineer, so you can describe what you want to do, and some great musicians. Nowadays, you gotta use ProTools, which probably no musician can understand. Or at least I can't anyway. I say that's why I'm a singer, 'cause I'm fucking stupid. A lot of those songs I'd written at school. I must have been sixteen going on seventeen. Drink Before The War was about my headmaster and Never Get Old that was about a boy I had a crush on at school. He was this gorgeous guy that all the girls wanted to go out with. I went out with him for like a day and then he sensibly dumped me. Mainly I look back at it and I think 'Jesus, I was a kid.' I'm very proud of it. But I was really young. Young and skinny. God, too skinny.
I DO NOT WANT WHAT I HAVEN'T GOT - Massive hits: Nothing Compares 2 U reaches Number 1 in fifteen countries, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got sells seven million copies. Attendant success, however, does not sit well with O'Connor.
Prince had written Nothing Compares 2 U for The Family. Their version was lovely. It was very different. It was extraordinarily slow. My manager at the time heard it and suggested I record it. At the time, Soul II Soul had just all kicked off. I really liked their records, so I asked Nellie Hooper if he would produce the thing. I remember working down in Ham with Chris Birkett, the engineer. There were a lot of sessions with him, writing songs at the last minute. I remember thinking certain songs were shit, and then they turned out to be the songs everybody loves. Like The Last Day Of Our Acquaintance, audiences go fucking mental for it. So I enjoyed hanging out with him. He was a normal guy, which I hope he takes as a compliment... not some record industry asshole.
Nothing Compares 2 U, The Last Day Of Our Acquaintance and Emperor's New Clothes are still huge songs live. Some of the other songs, I kind of cringe at them now. I don't necessarily think they're bad songs, they're so personal that, at this stage in my life, I wouldn't really deal with them. Like Feel So Different and You Cause As Much Sorrow. I'm quite proud of You Cause As Much Sorrow. It's quite a brave song. But at the same time, I wouldn't identify with it right now. I was a very young person. I was a square peg in a round hole. I didn't, and I don't, have the personality of a pop star. I found myself in a lot of trouble because I was suddenly expected to play a certain game, but no-one had told me the rules. It all was a bit Kafka. I didn't know the rules to the game - but if I had, I probably would've left. It all affected my self-esteem. Because I was young, it was very difficult for me to carry all that. I actually did go around the world unnecessarily for quite some time believing I was some kind of terrible person. I wasn't, I was just in completely the wrong zone. People would be out to get you. I was quite dangerous because of the types of things I was writing about and singing about, like child abuse. You're not talking about obvious politics in your songs but you're equally dangerous, and especially when you're a woman who isn't toeing the line. I was rejecting fame, I was rejecting pop stardom, I was rejecting the money, the things that everybody thought we should want in life.
AM I NOT YOUR GIRL? - How do you follow-up a multi-million selling album? With a collection of jazz standards, obviously...
They were songs I associated with my mother. She had died when I was almost eighteen, but I was still very much working it out. Certainly, a lot of the songs around the second record are in reference to that event. For instance, the whole reason I was crying in the video for Nothing Compares 2 U is because of the line, "All the flowers that you planted mama, in the backyard / All died when you went away". I was working out these big emotional issues. The other reason was, I can be quite calculating artistically. I wanted to create a red herring. I felt a lot of pressure. I didn't want to be in the pop star world and I had to get out of that by any means necessary. But equally, I didn't want to be under the pressure of the follow-up album: "How are you going to follow I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got? Blah blah blah. I wanted to take that expectation away. I've planted a few red herrings over the years, like Sean-Nós Nuas or the Rasta LP [Throw Down Your Arms, 2005]. They're records I stand by one thousand per cent, but they had purposes other than the artistic. [Producer] Phil Ramone was probably the richest person I've ever met. I had never come across a person who had lived such a rock star life and had so much fucking money. But what I was most impressed with was his ability to put a fucking incredible band together. I wasn't suddenly the big strong person I had been on the previous two albums. I had taken quite a kicking. I was far from home, blah blah blah. But he was understanding.
UNIVERSAL MOTHER - Art as therapy. O'Connor meditates on her late mother and her own maternity.
Universal Mother is the actual follow-up to I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. The title of the record came from a dream I had about my mother. '70s Ireland was a very difficult place to be if you were a kid. On top of that, I grew up in a house that was full of extraordinary violence. I came from an age where there was no such thing as therapy. I chose music as a pathway to recovery, as a way to work all that shit out. Universal Mother is the most important record, in terms of my beginning to really look at that stuff properly. In those days, myself, Roseanne Barr and Kurt Cobain were the first people to talk about being victims of child abuse without being in shadow. Up until that point, every time you saw a child abuse survivor, they were in shadows - as if they had something to be ashamed of. It was a really uncomfortable subject. It's a very important record from that point of view. Interestingly, it's the only record I've ever made in Ireland. But I think that's not for nothing. For an Irish artist to make such a record was terribly important. It still took another ten years before the issue of child abuse became something that was OK for Irish people to talk about.
Why the six-year gap? I believe it was because my manager of twelve years, Steve Fargnoli, had just died. He was a father figure in many ways, an absolute rock. I also moved back to Ireland. There was some stuff that had to be sorted out, life shit [in 1999, O'Connor was ordained into the breakaway Latin Tridentine church]. Yeah, there were a lot of people involved in that record. I like to wander around from album to album and work with different people. I met Dave Stewart and he said he'd love to write some songs together. And at the same time, I was crazy about Adrian Sherwood's work and Wyclef. I didn't want to wait and make one Adrian Sherwood record then one Dave Stewart record and then one Wyclef record. I kind of got excited! Yeah, Brian Eno is on that album as well. At the time, we absolutely hated each other, which was kind of hilarious. We had a dreadful row one day in France at Dave Stewart's house. I threw Eno's keyboard in the pool and stole his diary. I'd read it and he'd written something really shitty about me. There was all this mayhem. I flew back to England with it. Dave and Brian were chasing me, trying to find the diary which I dumped in the bin at the airport. But now we get on great. He's brilliant, Brian.
I was lucky enough to get out of Ireland when I was almost eighteen to live in London. A guy called Lepke, who was a friend of my manager, ran a radio station, the Dread Broadcasting Company. He had a record stall in Portobello Road and he held an open mic there on Saturdays. I used to go and hang out there with my manager 'cos I didn't know anyone else in London. Along would come all these Rastas - I'd never seen Rasta people before - and they'd be shouting into the mic, "Burn the Pope!", "Set fire to the Vatican!" I'd never heard anyone criticise the Church. Equally, apart from Slow Train Coming, the only religious music I'd heard was real boring music that would make God want to shoot himself. The priests were all miserable, whereas the Rastas were leaping around full of fire. I said to myself, "I really want to make a record of Rasta tunes," but the record company always want your pop record. I managed to get myself out of EMI, probably before Faith And Courage. So I was in a lucky position, creatively speaking, where I wasn't signed and I had enough money to make a few records that I wouldn't have been allowed to make for a major. Recording at Tuff Gong was fan-fucking-tastic, possibly the most memorable recording experience I've had. Jamaicans are my favourite people on Earth. Jesus Christ, it's the kind of place where you'd bump into Johnny Clarke sitting on a bench outside the airport. You'd just bump into these guys left, right and centre you didn't even think even existed.
THEOLOGY - An LP tackling nothing less than the big themes: God, in particular.
The only album I'm taking into the coffin with me. It was a record I wanted to make since I was about seven or eight years old. I was very interested in music at a very young age, and also in theology and God. Since I grew up in the '70s, I was interested in investigating this book, The Bible, that was being used to oppress people. When I began to read the Old Testament, I began to see that there was a potential to tell the truth, that is, expose the difference between the real God character in The Bible and the one the Church was selling. And there was a potential to share the truth musically. Then it grew out of my association with the Rasta movement, which became quite huge over the years. I'd also gone to theology college, where I had a brilliant teacher, an old priest. One day, I was reading The Song Of Solomon, which I love, and the priest came in, banged his finger up and down and said, "You should put that to music." At that time I was sick of music. I just didn't wanna know. But he kept on at me about it, so eventually I said, "OK." There was obviously a reason why I was at college. There was something I was trying to get out. It was Theology.
HOW ABOUT I BE ME (AND YOU BE YOU)? - O'Connor begins new songwriting practices. Will Smith scripts and the Holy Spirit are involved.
I wanted to close the previous chapter of my life, where my platform would be recovery. Van Morrison is a big inspiration to me. Certainly at the beginning of the '80s, his records are very personal and about recovery. He was showing that you could take a musical journey of healing. There is a certain happiness on How About I Be Me. It's the start of a more joyful expression. It's not about recovery and healing, it's about what you could do once you've done that. So a song like 4th And Vine is a really happy, girly dance-y tune. It became that I wasn't writing songs about my own life or my own suffering. I began to really change as a songwriter. I began to hone a certain craft. Back Where You Belong was inspired by a script that I was given for a movie, The Water Horse. It was the first time I started to write character songs. I'd been given two scripts. The other was a song called Very Far From Home, originally written for a Will Smith film. I didn't give it to them as I thought the song was better than the movie. I hated the script. I hated everything about it. The character in Take Off Your Shoes is supposed to be the Holy Spirit talking to the Vatican.
I'M NOT BOSSY, I'M THE BOSS - O'Connor's songwriting tip continues; Chicago blues becomes an unexpected influence.
When you're a woman, often people neglect the fact you've written songs. They talk about you as a singer. It's a very male world, songwriting. I suppose I've been much more focused as a singer, but nowadays I see songwriting as my number one job. In the last few years, I've been listening to a lot of Chicago blues - the happy, funky blues. It became a major influence on this LP in terms of songwriting as much as sound. I watched interviews with a lot of these old guys, like Buddy Guy, talking about songwriting. They kept talking about the facts of life, identify with the simple things in people's lives. If it's not money, it's romance. You don't need six minutes if you can say it in three. This record is about a series of female characters, and the particular journey of one of the characters who matures from romanticising girl to sensible woman. I wanted to make a romantic record. It's a very womanly record, from that point of view. What are the key songs? My favourite is Voice Of My Doctor. The song was inspired by a painting I came across which had this giant stone head of a man and this tiny little Buddhist priestess leaning against him snuggling, and he had a big old tear running down his face. And I love Your Green Jacket, where the character manages to find a few moments alone with his jacket.